Sunday, April 06, 2014

learning leadership from my garden

Last night we ate ratatouille. The onions were sweated over a low heat for 45 minutes. The herbs were added, including basil, garlic and Italian parsley all fresh from the garden. Over time, the vegetables, pepper, eggplant, courgette, tomato were added. Finally, cheese and bread crumbs mixed together.

The eggplant was grown from seed (heirloom from Diggers Club) in the garden and in the growing, I’ve been challenged about leadership. I planted the seeds back in October and to be honest, they struggled. Only a few germinated. Those that did grew very, very slowly. It was a constant battle to protect them from snails. They were rapidly overtaken by broccoli. When we left for holiday in mid-December, only two plants remained, about 2 cm high.

When I returned to work, two plants remained, but still only 2 cm high. To be honest, I was pretty disappointed. One month and no sign of progress. However, at least they were alive. Much else in the garden, ravaged by a run of 42 degree days, had wilted.

I removed what was large and competing (the broccoli) and began to water. Slowly the two eggplants grew. First flowers appeared.

Now, the fruit hangs heavy and black, a gorgeous sheen amid the green. The first fruits were delicious last night and we face the prospect of more ratatouille, along with eggplant dips, in the weeks ahead.

I’ve reflected on leadership as I’ve tended to these eggplants over the summer. It would’ve been easy to buy seedlings, but there is something deeply satisfying about planting from seed. It would’ve been easy to give up in the face of little growth, but I’ve realised the value of patience and persistence. As I’ve watered, I’ve pondered those with whom I’m relationally connected. I’ve wondered what it will mean for them to keep growing, and how I might participate in that. This has begun prayer and introspection.

I’ve needed to remove the broccoli. That was really difficult. It was large and impressive. But it was actually harming the growth of another. I’ve begun to inspect my own life, wondering what habits and attitudes are in fact choking the life of something else. I’ve begun to realise that the loss of a key person, a key leader, as essential part of the team, might in fact be an opportunity for another person to begin to fruit – differently, uniquely. Which has provided a different perspective on the current movement within the team at Uniting College.

Last week I spoke on theological education in leadership formation. It was an academic paper, that drew forth a range of academic challenges.

Perhaps I should have just told them about my eggplant. That theological education in leadership formation means planting, watering, removing, enjoying. That it also means

  • tending to God’s 3 gardens – through Creation in Eden, by Resurrection at the empty tomb, by Eschatology in Revelation 21
  • the spirituality of composting (here)
  • the spirituality of gardening (here and here)
  • the ecclesiology of garden church -  (here and practically here)
  • about an outdoor faith indoors (here)
  • a funny story that emerged because we as a church gave out vege plants at our annual Spring Clean community contact day
  • the ethics of gardening leadership ie about why I’m a vegetarian (here) and how  little actually land you need to feed a family of 3 (here)

And as I spoke, I could have passed around some home made eggplant dip.

Posted by steve at 12:40 PM | Comments (0)

Monday, March 10, 2014

renovations and leadership

We spent the weekend painting the kitchen. It’s a long weekend here in Adelaide, so it seemed a good time to enter into the chaos that painting a kitchen induces – meals, snacks, drinks – the countless reasons a kitchen remains indispensable. That in itself got me thinking, about timing, about doing things at moments of convenience for those around you.

In a 45 minute burst on Sunday afternoon, the kitchen was transformed. It is that moment when the first top coat goes on and boom – there is instant change. The colour you’ve picked is suddenly all over the walls. The old has gone, the new has come.

It got me thinking about leadership. I’ve met people who live for that “boom”, who seem to spent their entire lives seeking that 45 minute burst, that big signature, instant burst of colour change. It’s an adrenaline rush and a pretty exciting moment to be part of.

The reality is however, when it comes to the renovation, that it has taken over two years to get to that 45 minute transformation. First the big picture preparation – the large holes in the walls that needed to be filled, the lighting that needed to be changed, the pantry that needed to be built, the window that needed to be replaced. This is large scale project management, a time line of organising.

Second the small picture preparation – the plastering, again and again, the sanding, the spot undercoating. This is the painstaking part. Ironically, it is the preparation that will make or break what makes the paint job. Every blemish is magnified under lights, every poorly sanded surface is magnified in the right (wrong?) light.

Having finished, first the two years of preparation and second, the 45 minute “boom”, our work was hardly done. Much still stretched in front of us. Not just a final top coat but also the finishing touches. In this case, the skirtings and beading. It is these small changes that bring completion.

So, a number of leadership lessons tied up in the weekend renovation. There are times to prep – often years, often dirty, often painstaking. There are times to “boom” and bring large scale, sweeping momentum, a new grand gesture. There are times to attend to finish, to pay attention to detail, to take the final moments of care.

All of this comes down to a mix of planning and discernment, to preparation and timing.

Posted by steve at 07:58 PM | Comments (2)

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

theology, leadership and Satan

Beyond education: exploring a theology of the church’s formation is a colloquim I’m speaking at next month in Melbourne. The conference seeks to move beyond either/or statements – that ‘theology’ is for ‘academics’. I’ve been asked to give some input titled “Theological education in leadership formation”.

This paper will interrogate the tagline of Uniting College for Leadership and Theology – learn! lead! live! – using the work of cultural theorist Mieke Bal in order to pay particular attention to the place of formation in a pluralistic world. It will explore the ethical implications inherent in notions of “founding texts” and “moments of meaning.” Some implications, for ministry practice (learn!), for ministry agents (lead!), for communities of faith (live!), will be outlined. The aim is a theology of ecclesial formation that might shift the conversation beyond modern dualities of head and heart, theory and practise, religious and secular, individual and communal.

In doing some preparation I came across the following comment, on a well known theology blog:

That still leaves the Satan: I can’t quite decide where he would best fit — probably as an expert in Leadership.

It’s a fairly strong statement, which seems to view leadership with quite some disdain. Which has got me pondering, as I prepare my presentation – why does leadership cause such negative responses in some circles of theological education? What are the concerns about leadership that might be held by an audience of theologians?

Posted by steve at 09:21 PM | Comments (4)

Thursday, February 06, 2014

from Waitangi to Walking on Country

Today is Waitangi Day in my homeland. On this day in 1840, a Treaty was signed between Maori people of New Zealand and the Queen. While it is a times a contested document, it stills stands as a seminal moment in the history of New Zealand and in how two people’s might relate to each other. Over the years of my time of ministry in New Zealand, it provided a rich ground for reflection – in sermons, in prayer, in communion.

Today, here at Uniting College, in Adelaide, Australia, is the start of Walking on Country. It might be coincidence, but I don’t think we’d be Walking on Country without Waitangi Day, without the energy that Rosemary Dewerse and myself, both New Zealanders, both Missiologists, both shaped by being Kiwi, being Christian, both now here at Uniting College, have poured into this.

Today a group of about 20 people headed off to the Flinders Ranges, to the land of the Adnyamathanha people. They will be led by local indigenous leaders, to be in their world, to hear their stories. It is the 2nd year we as a College have run this. (See here and here and here).

It was a few days that had more impact on our life as a College in 2013 than any other few days that year. New insights, new relationships (including Pilgrim Uniting), new sensitivity. Thanks Waitangi Day, for pushing us toward Walking on Country.

Posted by steve at 11:08 AM | Comments (2)

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Theological education in leadership formation

I’ve been asked to present at a colloquium in Melbourne in March. Titled Beyond Education: Exploring a Theology of the Church’s Theological Formation, the event is being sponsored by the Uniting Church’s Centre for Theology and Ministry and the University of Divinity. It involves scholars, church leaders and ministers, from diverse Christian traditions all picking away at a theology of theological education.

I’m one of 11 presenters and have been given the topic – Theological education in leadership formation. Here’s my 100 word abstract, due tomorrow:

This paper will interrogate the tagline of Uniting College for Leadership and Theology – learn! lead! live! – using the work of cultural theorist Mieke Bal in order to pay particular attention to the place of formation in a pluralistic world. It will explore the ethical implications inherent in notions of “founding texts” and “moments of meaning.” Some implications, for ministry practice (learn!), for ministry agents (lead!), for communities of faith (live!), will be outlined. The aim is a theology of ecclesial formation that might shift the conversation beyond modern dualities of head and heart, theory and practise, religious and secular, individual and communal.

Posted by steve at 05:32 PM | Comments (7)

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

pioneer processes workshop

Part of a letter sent today …

A key signpost for us at Uniting College is to grow pioneers in innovation and invigoration. We’ve been blessed to see a number of pioneers – at least eight I can think of – sense God’s call to train with us over the last few years. This has raised new questions, posed fresh challenges for us as a College.

Pioneer processes – selection, training, placement, sustaining workshop
Tuesday 21 January 2014, 9:30 am – 3:45 pm, at UCLT

This pioneer processes workshop, is designed to help us process what we’re learning. To ensure a pioneer flavour, we’ll have Ben Edson, a Fresh Expressions missioner from the UK, with many years experience, join us.

For more information, see the information here …

Posted by steve at 05:09 PM | Comments (4)

Saturday, November 16, 2013

faith development of women pioneers

If I had time, if I had money …

I’d like to do a research project exploring the faith development of women pioneers in not-for profit projects, who are motivated by a specifically Christian outlook. It would conduct qualitative research into women who exercise leadership in three contexts – larger evangelical/charismatic churches, ecclesial pioneering contexts and not-for profit projects – comparing and contrast the processes by which they develop their leadership, the impact of their situatedness in context, and the implications for their faith and spiritual development.

Anyone want to join me? More importantly, anyone want to fund the data gathering?

Posted by steve at 11:14 AM | Comments (0)

Friday, November 08, 2013

Leadership formation days

All around us at Uniting College is change. So much of it that at times I find it hard to keep on track of.

Back in July, we introduced changes to our Leadership Formation Days (announced here). Building on the past, we decided to try in our Leadership Formation Days to focus more specifically on practices and storytelling. Leadership Formation Days (currently) involve Uniting Church candidates for ministry and those in discernment. Prior to 2010, they occurred weekly on a Wednesday afternoon for chapel, community and colloquium input.

With a move to more dispersed training models and Candidates in context and at distance, we needed to find a different rhythm. So we shifted in 2011 to monthly on a Monday, all day. We kept chapel and community and offered a range of topics considered topical.

Another shift began this semester. We’ve moved from topics to practices. We opted to explore the practices (10) essential for mission-shaped spirituality. (Drawing on Susan Hope’s Mission-shaped Spirituality: The Transforming Power of Mission). Each time we gather we take a particular practice and over our day together, explore it in more depth, with a particular focus, on what the practice might mean for us as life-long learners and effective leaders in mission today.

Rather than work through them in the order from Mission-shaped Spirituality: The Transforming Power of Mission, we opted for a most challenging basis. This involved an initial introduction to all 10 practices and as part of that, the question – what practice challenges you the most? The results have shaped how the order.

So the shape of our final leadership formation Day for 2013 – with a focus on being bearers of the message – was as follows.

9:30 am – Missional Practice – Tim Hein – Being message bearers – the habits that shape and sharpen “message bearer” ministry

11 am – Morning tea

11:20 – Communities of trust processes in groups in S1, chapel, common space – Introduction including reflection of practise as a disciplines that read us, read our community actions.

12:20- Chapel with special guest Malcolm Gordon leading

1:10 – Lunch

2:00 pm – Storytelling one – Julie, an ordinary evangelist – a great example of a message bearer – using Skype. After the story, reflect in groups using a regular set of questions to engage and deepen insight.

2:45 pm – Storytelling two – Saint story told by Steve Taylor – Parikaha story as an example of a community as a message bearer.

After some adjustment over the last few months, all that initial trying out of new things – story, group processes – there was on Monday a real sense of depth and engagement. The mixed modes of input – teaching, storytelling, chapel, discussion, food are throwing up some lovely patterns. A highlight for me has been the storytelling – inviting new voices among us. We’ve used a mix of local, national and international guests and heard some great stories of God at work. A change, one of many, that is working it’s way nicely through our life.

Posted by steve at 06:11 PM | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

change as the aggregation of small moments

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about small moments. What are the quiet places, the moments in conversation, the habits, by which I might be part of enacting change and being part of transformation? I work for an organisation in decline, one that has been in decline for decades (over a hundred years, back to the start of the twentieth century according to one researcher). In decline, certain surface habits can emerge, certain ways of being, certain self-perceptions and accepting norms and acceptance of the status quo.

The organisation I work for is itself part of a larger story, a faith that is in the West eroding away. This produces pressures and realities. Again, it suggest a set of habits, held to be determinative.

It is tempting in such times to look for the bold gesture and the silver bullet, the only sweeping solution that will herald a new era. I see this embodied in the call for certain types of leaders, or the endless supply of conferences. I see this is the rush toward action. I see this in myself. I see it in others.

So a quiet encouragement today from an unlikely source, Douglas Coupland’s Life After God.

“And if we were to collect these small moments in a notebook and save them over a period of months we would see certain trends emerge from our collection—certain voices would emerge that have been trying to speak through us. We would realize that we have been having another life altogether; one we didn’t even know was going on inside us. And maybe this other life is more important than the one we think of as being real—this clunky day-to-day world of furniture and noise and metal. So just maybe it is these small silent moments which are the true story-making events of our lives.” Life After God

Key words that I ponder – collect, small, inside, silent, story-making. It has echoes of the work of Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation, his call to let the true story inside each of us be heard. A story repressed by ourselves, by our families of origin, by our society. Yet inside us, it calls, offering us, if we will listen, our true vocation.

A call to reject the grand gesture and instead look for small moments, the repeated habits, the attitudes. To see in these the enormous potential for change, by the simple act of listening, journalling even, and over time, letting the trends surface, and in them weaving a story. Not a surface story of first appearances, but a true, deep story.

That is my task today – to continue to listen, to collect, to discern – another story.

Posted by steve at 08:28 AM | Comments (6)

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

telling a story one year on

Today I’m planting seeds. First, early morning, in my garden, Van Gogh sunflowers, Wild Sweetie micro tomatoes, heirloom carrots and provencal salad mix. Second, later today, I’m hosting a one year on anniversary.

This is the invite I sent out (planted?) a few weeks ago …


A year ago, you gave us at Uniting College a gift.

You participated with us in a Capacity Builders process, giving your input, ideas and perspectives, as we at Uniting College worked toward a four year Strategic Planning process.

One year on, we want to report back.

On Tuesday, September 10, between 4:15-5:15 pm, in Uniting College Common Space, 34 Lipsett Tce, we want to thank and update you,

to share with you,

  • the result – including the new tag line, sharpened mission statement, signposts, and 2014 objectives
  • the home truths – some feedback we found hard to hear, but essential as we looked into the feedback mirror
  • the road not travelled – some moments of learning, about ourselves and our mission, emerging from our 2013 objectives
  • the road travelled – some highlights of God’s goodness in the last 12 months

There will be wine, cheese, stories and information, so for catering purposes, can you please RSVP to eloise dot scherer at flinders dot edu dot au.

It was in September a year ago that we as a theological College began a strategic planning process. While the idea of strategic planning in a theological college has a number of potential pitfalls, for us its been a breath of fresh air, providing clarity and allowing a depth of listening and community and team.

Today we’ll share some of that, and some of the stories of fresh life (planted seeds) that have sprouted among us.

Update: Feedback was very positive. We began with wine and cheese, which gave a relaxed, after work type of feel.

I then talked about the results, the feedback and the process. At various times I offered ways to engage. One idea that went really well, was giving out 5 hot dots to each person and asking them to vote on what they thought our 2014 goals should be. The goals had been placed up around the walls. I ran through them and then (3 days after the election here in Australia) people got to to vote (again), wandered around with the dots, choosing. It has been great for us as a team to have this outside input into what we as a team had initially thought was important.

Finally I finished with four highlights of the 2013 gone

  • our first ever candidate indigenous immersion experience (see here and here)
  • a just announced Gold award for “Best Theological Article” from the Australasian Religious Press Association for one of our lecturers
  • our growth in the use of online learning, in both our under-graduate and post-graduate courses
  • regional delivery, allowing us to engage many more lay people in our BMin

All in all, One Year On worked really well – an informal way for us to enjoy ourselves, while maintaining connections, giving and receiving feedback and telling stories

Posted by steve at 09:04 AM | Comments (0)

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Leadership Formation as mission-shaped practices

This is a sign of some of our recent work at College – we’re shifting our formation day processes for candidates to focus around the practices of mission-shaped leadership. Here’s the email that went out yesterday to candidates and those in a Period of Discernment.

Our next Leadership Formation Day is August 5, 9:30 am – 3:30 pm. We will begin in S1.

As it is the start of a new semester, we will return to the vision for Uniting College. When Andrew Dutney introduced the new name of the College to Synod in 2009, he did it by reflecting on his experiences of backpacking around Europe. He described the backpacking habit of tearing out the chapter that related to the particular city you were in at the time. 

“It shocked me when I first saw it ….  I soon saw the good sense in what was going on. Why carry around 500 bound pages on the whole of Western Europe all day when you really only need the 20 pages on Antwerp? … It’s just extra weight on your shoulders.  In any case, the memories of the sights and experiences of a Belgian port city are carried more effectively in the stories that you swap with other travellers on the next train than in a few printed pages.”

Which he linked to the dominant image of Christian life in the Uniting Church of pilgrimage (full talk is here).

As a Uniting College team, we’ve sensed its time for another chapter in the pilgrimage of Leadership Formation Days. Prior to 2010, we met weekly on a Wednesday afternoon for chapel, community and colloquium input.

The chapter could be titled: Weekly and Wednesdays.

In the last few years we’ve met monthly on a Monday, all day. We’ve kept chapel and community and extended the colloquium input, with a range of topics – Spiritual gifts, Preamble, Conflict etc.

The chapter title could be titled: Monthly and topical.

As a team, we’ve discerned another chapter. On August 5, we will introduce this chapter. We will focus on 10 practices essential for mission-shaped spirituality. And ask each other what they mean for us as life-long learners and effective leaders in mission today. And swap stories as pilgrims on the way. (And we’ll keep chapel and community).

Perhaps with hindsight this chapter will be titled: Monthly and mission-shaped.

Posted by steve at 08:23 AM | Comments (0)

Monday, July 29, 2013

Why the Leap of faith is a myth

Where do great ideas come from? Research indicates it never comes a golden bullet, an inspired leap of faith. Vera John-Steiner interviewed over 70 living creative geniuses. She also analyzed the notebooks of 50 dead ones (including Tolstoy, Einstein, etc.) to look at their work habits.

She even planned to title her book “The Leap” because it would be about those giant flashes of inspiration that led to breakthrough ideas.

But she was completely wrong.

Eureka! moments turned out to be a myth.

There was no inspiration moment where a fully formed answer arrived.

Strokes of genius happened over time.

A great idea comes into the world by drips and drabs, false starts, and rough sketches. (From here)

Instead, creative inspiration involves writing down ideas as early as possible, keeping everything, giving things time and being willing to wrestle with ideas and search for clarity. And the refusal to expect that inspiration will deliver a finished product.

Perhaps the only golden bullet is buying a notebook/keeping a blog ie finding some place to store your work product.

Posted by steve at 10:10 AM | Comments (1)

Monday, June 24, 2013

the thinner the skin of leadership? U2, Kite, Jesus and change

’cause hardness, it sets in
You need some protection
The thinner the skin
- U2, Kite

I’ve been reflecting a lot on leadership recently. There are public dimensions to being in a role like Principal. Lots of people provide opinions on how things could be, on how the job should be done. If change happens, then there are all sorts of unintended consequences. Human responses to change are natural, important, and need to be heard. As U2 say, “the thinner the skin,” the more these opinions are taken on board.

I’ve observed a number of responses, a number of ways that “protection” is sought.

One is to hide, to avoid the intensity of relationships by being less available. This can be physically, by finding other places to be. This can be internally, by withdrawing within oneself.

Another is cynicism, to find oneself more and more often with arms folded, seeing the negative side of everything.

I’m sure there are other ways that people find protection.

One of the things I admire about Jesus is how he lived with a “thinner skin.” Even in the events of Holy Week, we find him caring, listening, leading. Through all this he seemed to remain open. There is no resorting to cyncism, no hiding from the challenges he faces.

So to use the lines from U2, did he find a “healthy” hardness, appropriate modes of protection, life-giving ways to enact his gifts and charisms? Or is that any “hardness”, any “protection” is in fact not in the way of Jesus? Was he in the end, so “thin-skinned” that it led to death? And is that in fact God’s way of bringing life? Can Kingdom change only occur when the seed dies?

Only questions, in what is, a fairly “thin-skinned” blogpost :) !

Posted by steve at 10:25 AM | Comments (3)

Thursday, May 30, 2013

totems for ministry training in the Uniting Church

Totem – A natural object or animal believed by a particular society to have spiritual significance and adopted by it as an emblem.

The pathway to ordained ministry in the Uniting church is divided into four phrases.

First, an initial period of discernment. For at least a year a person has a mentor, some set ministry tasks, some study, which includes the range of ministry opportunities within the Uniting Church, and some intentional retreat experiences. These are designed to explore the question – what is God calling me to.

Second, the Core Phase. If the person believes they are called to ordained ministry, they apply to become a candidate. If accepted, they enter a period of around three years, in which they mix intentional study, ministry practice and formation. This includes being partnered with the Formation Panel, who work with them three times a year, discerning together the best pathway by which to nurture each person’s unique ministry charism.

Third, Phase 3. If deemed ready by the Church, they are ordained and enter a first placement. They are primarily in placement in ministry, but are surrounded by a stronger set of supports. These include a supervisor. They also remain with their formation panel and continue to study.

Fourth, lifelong learning, in which they continue in placement. They are blessed out of a Formation panel. They are encouraged to continue in supervision and in learning.

With that oveview, let me return to totems, in this case the objects by which a particular society places spiritual significance. At the start of Phase 2, the new candidate meets with the Principal. As part of this, the Principal gives them a number of gifts.

I reckon these are totems. Symbolically they speak of what is considered essential to Phase 2. In the case of Uniting College, historically they have included a worship resources (Uniting in Worship 2), a book about the regulations of the church, a book of essays on key polity decisions and a book on the history of ministry formation.

Here’s my question.

What five things would you give to a person about to start training for ministry within a denominational system?

(Note, I am focusing on Phase 2, training, not Phase 3, first placement. The Uniting church has another set of totems for that!).

Posted by steve at 09:12 AM | Comments (4)